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Democracy Then and Now

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Rise of Democracy - Solon's Reforms

"Such power I gave the people as might do, Abridged not what they had, now lavished new. Those that were great in wealth and high in place, My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace. Before them both I held my shield of might, And let not either touch the other's right."
- Plutarch's Life of Solon

Slavery or starvation? Those were the choices many ancient farmers faced after they'd run through whatever credit they could get and wound up with mountains of debt. Solon faced the daunting task of improving the condition of debt-ridden farmers, laborers forced into bondage over debt, and another disaffected group, the middle class, which was excluded from government. Solon had to help them while simultaneously avoiding alienating the increasingly wealthy landowners and aristocracy.

Solon's solutions were, of necessity, compromises. Because of these reform compromises and other legislation, posterity refers to him as Solon the lawgiver.

Solon, the first Athenian literary figure whose name we know, came from an aristocratic family that traced its ancestry back 10 generations to Hercules, according to Plutarch. First coming to prominence, in about 600 B.C., for his patriotic exhortations when the Athenians were fighting a war with Megara for possession of Salamis [see map If], Solon was elected Eponymous Archon (the magistrate by whose name the year is known) in 594/3 B.C. and then, perhaps, again about 20 years later.

Two centuries earlier -- in the 8th century, rich farmers began exporting their goods, olive oil and wine. Such cash crops required an expensive initial investment. The poorer farmer was more limited in choice of crop, but he still could have continued to eke out a living for a long time, if only he had either rotated his crops or let his fields lie fallow.

When land was mortgaged, stone markers (hektemoroi) were placed on the land to show the amount of debt. During the 7th century, these markers proliferated. The poorer, wheat farmers lost their land. Laborers were free men who paid out 1/6th of all they produced. In the years of poor harvests, this wasn't enough to survive. To feed themselves and their families, laborers put up their bodies as collateral to borrow from their employers. Exorbitant interest plus living on less than five sixths of what was produced made it impossible to repay loans. With default, the collateral was called on. Free men were being sold into slavery. The situation was intolerable. At the point at which a tyrant or revolt seemed likely, the Athenians appointed Solon to mediate.

In his reform measures, Solon pleased neither the revolutionaries who wanted the land redistributed nor the landowners who wanted to keep all their property intact.

"Though Phanias the Lesbian affirms, that Solon, to save his country, put a trick upon both parties, and privately promised the poor a division of the lands, and the rich, security for their debts."
-Plutarch Life of Solon

Instead, Solon instituted the seisachtheia by which he didn't cancel all debts, but did:

  • cancel all pledges where a man's freedom had been given as guarantee,
  • freed all debtors from bondage,
  • made it illegal to enslave debtors, and
  • put a limit on the amount of land an individual could own.

Solon also repealed all of Draco's laws, except those on homicide, because the punishment for all was death. Solon didn't deprive the nobles of their power, since he left them to fill the offices of the magistrates. He also created an Areopagus, according to Plutarch, to consist of those, like himself, who had been yearly archons. This aristocratic Areopagus was to serve as watchdog of the laws and to look over matters before they were presented to the assembly of the people. But Solon helped the disenfranchised by creating a council of 400. He combined 100 citizens from each of the 4 tribes. He also divided the people into classes based on wealth/property, and he instituted laws allowing any citizen to prosecute someone else who physically harmed him.

Plutarch records Solon's own words about his actions:

"The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me Removed, -- the land that was a slave is free;
that some who had been seized for their debts he had brought back from other countries, where
-- so far their lot to roam, They had forgot the language of their home;
and some he had set at liberty, --
Who here in shameful servitude were held."

Next page > Solon's Democracy > Page 1, Solon's Constitutional Reforms
Rise of Democracy Quiz

Related Resources

Pericles
Rise of Democracy: The Four Tribes
Rise of Democracy: Cylon and Draco
Rise of Democracy: Reforms of Cleisthenes
Democracy Then and Now
Seven Sages
• Plutarch's Life of Solon

Elsewhere on the Web

• < URL = www.usask.ca/antharch/cnea/CourseNotes/SolonNotes.html#solon> John Porter's Solon

• < URL = www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/GREECE/ATHENS.HTM> Ancient Greece: Athens
• < URL = www.usask.ca/antharch/cnea/DeptTransls/Solon.html> Solon's poetry fragments
• < URL = www.san.beck.org/EC18-Greekto500.html#5> Ethics of Greek Culture
• Richard Hooker's < URL = /www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/GREECE/ATHENS.HTM> Ancient Greece: Athens
• John Porter's < URL = www.usask.ca/antharch/cnea/CourseNotes/SolonNotes.html#solon> Solon

Print Source

• J.B. Bury. A History of Greece
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